Dance in bloom

How do performing artists stay in business, years on end? “Cold-hearted Darwining” says Robby Barnett, former company member and now co-artistic director of Pilobolus.

“If the public is not amused by your plumage, you don’t last long. Somebody eats you.”

Pilobolus, the world-renowned modern dance company, returns to Pepperdine Jan. 15, having performed there in January 1996.

Barnett, speaking by telephone from his home in “rural” Connecticut, says, “One of the nice things about a regular return is that people know what you do. We don’t feel like we have to be geniuses every time. We can say, ‘This is what we’re thinking about this year.'”

Named after a fungus that reacts to light, the company began when four undergraduate Dartmouth men needed a gym class to graduate.

“We were not trained in the tradition of dance,” Barnett says in one of the great understatements. “We picked up bits of movement. The vocabulary we evolved was what amused us.” It has also amused, intrigued and taught the company’s audiences for the past 28 years.

How do they know when a piece is “working” for their audiences? “Rarely do we get insight from dance critics, I’m sorry to say,” he says. The choreographers do discern certain things from audience responses – “Not the tumultuous applause, but from the attention.”

To help keep itself alive in the tenuous world of professional dance companies, the company established an educational arm, the Pilobolus Institute, about 10 years ago.

Through the institute, the troupe teaches six-day choreographic intensives around the country, at prestigious university dance programs, at elementary schools and to IBM scientists. A duet company, Pilobolus II, in part provides interactive concerts for children.

The focus, says Barnett, is to stimulate interest in making dances, not just performing them.

The four co-artistic directors of Pilobolus share in business operations and in choreography. Barnett says they evolved a method that lets them work “unified” and without losing the eccentricities for which the company is known.

The company creates three new pieces every year. “One of the nice things about having a big group of choreographers is that we have consistent productivity,” says Barnett.

The Pepperdine program is scheduled to include five works, each new to Los Angeles.

“Apoplexy” opens the program, with score for guitar by Paul Sullivan, longtime collaborator with the company. Asked to describe the dance, Barnett says, “New works are new, and it’s a little hard to understand them. We are understanding them as we are doing them. They’re a form of self-analysis. Each piece is a record of the time in which it was made.”

A solo by co-artistic director Allison Chase follows, to music by David Mills.

“Gnomen” is a men’s quartet, also to Sullivan’s music. “We began as a men’s quartet,” Barnett says. “Maybe it’s a way of stepping back and looking at what we were.”

“Orangotango” says Barnett, is “a fun piece,” to music by Piazzolla.

“The Hand that Mocked, The Heart that Fed” grew out of the Doris Duke Millennium Awards for modern dance and jazz music collaborations. The composer is Maria Schneider, who writes for and conducts a 17-piece jazz orchestra. “As all our work eventually is,” says Barnett, “this is a look at collaboration, how groups of people interact with each other. The dancers are making changes all the time, and we are adapting them as we see new things.

“After all,” he says, “if you know what you wanted to say, why even bother? It’s the discovery. It’s the investigation.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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